Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I have a thing with weddings.

No matter what I do, I always seem to be late to ‘em.

There was the time in Chicago where I got stuck in traffic and then subsequently lost in traffic. When I finally frantically rushed into the ceremony, nearly an hour late, I realized that I didn’t actually recognize anyone in the sanctuary. Turns out I was at the wrong wedding in the wrong church.

The next summer, there was a wedding up in Milwaukee. Heavy traffic out of Illinois caused a bit of a lead foot crossing into Wisconsin, so it was no surprise when I got pulled over for speeding. With a $250 ticket crumpled into the glove box, I pulled up late to the wedding anyway.

There’s nothing like opening the doors in a church, interrupting a wedding ceremony that’s already in progress. The sound of creaking door hinges and the glare of the beam of sunlight you invite inside simultaneously turn the heads of the dozens of already-seated, smugly-on-time guests. They all want to check the identity of this offending Late Person. Does she belong to the groom’s side or the bride’s? Their eyes follow you -- the clack-clack of the high heels you painstakingly picked out to match your dress embarrassingly echoing through the sanctuary -- to see which side of the aisle you sit on. You sink into the pew in shame, catching the glare of at least one of the members of the Bridal Party, if not the Bride and Groom themselves.

About a month ago, I was invited to attend a wedding here in Huajuapan. I thought Mexican Time would be on my side for this event, that there would be a possibility of actually arriving on time, since “on time” here in Mexico essentially means “60 to 90 minutes late.”

Unfortuantely, my date/ride, in true Mexican fashion, was more than three hours late to pick me up. (FYI, three hours late is very, very late, even by the generous standards of Mexican Time.) Together, we faced the embarrassment of arriving at the reception just after the meal had been served. The entire party of 200-plus guests looked up from their nearly-clean plates to gawk at the strange, tall gringa clack-clacking her way to be seated at the unadorned, fold-out table in the corner. We were served cold macaroni-and-hot-dog salad for dinner because they’d run out of the real stuff.

It felt like sitting the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. Until you learn to act like a grown-up -- chew with your mouth shut, get along with your little sister, arrive on time to things for once -- you’re relegated to PB&J sandwiches at the card table in the kitchen while everyone else is eating drumsticks in the dining room.

So, this Saturday, when a friend invited me to his Big Day here in Huajuapan, I saw it as an opportunity to redeem myself with the Wedding Gods, particularly those of the Mexican variety: I wouldn’t rely on the graces of Mexican Time for this wedding. I’d just try to arrive, well, on time for once.

On Saturday morning, I studied the ceremony start time listed on the invitation: 12 o’clock noon. Time doesn’t get lost in translation.

I nagged my date -- the same guy who’d inflicted the three-hours-late incident on me -- to be ready early. We were leaving at twenty-to-twelve at the very latest. I wasn’t going to suffer that kind of embarrassment again. ¿Comprende?

I nagged him when we left late, at 12:15, because he'd forgotten to sign the card and couldn't figure out what to write. I kept nagging him when we inevitably got lost on the way to the ceremony. (How do you not know where to go? Aren’t there, like, three streets in this whole town?) And the nagging continued as we pulled up to the event, a full forty minutes late.

At 12:40 pm, the familiar feeling of dread churned in my stomach as I played the inevitable scenario in my head: the opening of church doors, the interrupting of sermons, the clack-clacking of high heels, the eating of cold macaroni and hot dogs…

Hand-in-hand, we crept up to the wedding site (it was an outdoor wedding, so there were no doors to be open, gracias a Dios) to find…

…a handful of inpatient-looking people scattered in the audience, a maintenance crew still setting up the priest’s podium, and the band doing their ever-essential check-check on the stage.

The impatient-looking people in the audience looked up, gawked at the strange, tall gringa, and followed the clack-clack of her high heels to see where she sat: Bride’s side or groom’s side? Who arrives this early?

The groom himself showed up at 1:30 pm.

Additional guests began filing in around 2 pm, and the ceremony began at about 2:30.

Right on time, y’all. We, obviously, were just 2.5 hours early this time around.

The bride’s sister arrived at about 3 pm.

Her late arrival turned a few heads, but her high heels didn’t make a sound.

I hated her for that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Idealism is Dead

I’ve had a strange feeling swirling in the pit of my stomach lately. And I don’t think it’s the street-food induced amoebas that have been swimming there since yesterday.

No, this feeling has stuck around for a while. I think it began in Guatemala, in April, when I was there to “vacation” (and, by “vacation,” I mean “get ripped off left and right by the rats that run the Guatemalan tourism industry”) and it seems to have come to fruition in Mexico City, last week, when I was attending a United Nations conference (with my clean suit in tow, thank you Rocco brothers).

The strange feeling seems to be emptiness. There’s an emptiness in my stomach, deep down in my guts, a void that this lovely notion called “idealism” used to occupy. This may seem strange coming from a girl who has just come back from a three-day United Nations conference, but...

My idealism is dead.

I’m tempted to add an “at least for now” loophole to that last sentence, but that would seem a bit, well, idealistic, don’t you think? (My idealism may be gone, but apparently my sarcasm is alive and well.)

This “idealism is dead” declaration will come as a surprise to those who know me best. I’m the girl who, in 1998, upon graduating from high school, wrote that she wanted to be “working in the jungles of Guatemala” by the time her 10-year reunion rolled around. And I’m the girl who, just one year ago, found herself standing in the middle of a bar in Mexico City, on the verge of tears, apologizing on behalf of her US government, to the applause of the entire drunken crowd, for all the wrongs the gringos had done to our Latin American neighbors.

Now, I’m not working in the jungles of Guatemala, but I am working in the mountains of southern Mexico. Close enough. Regardless of geography, I’m living in a place where I am constantly being made to feel like I have to apologize for my US citizenship. And that has gotten really, really, REALLY old.

I’m going to just come out and say it: Mexico’s problems are not my fault. Nor are they (entirely) the fault of the United States government. And as long as the collective blame-directing fingers of my host nation keep pointing north (or toward me), Mexico’s problems will continue.

(The picture I’ve chosen to illustrate this passage provides a case-in-point. These Obama-mask-clad Mexican farmers took the streets in downtown Mexico City last Tuesday, brandishing a sign that read: “If the politicians treated us like they treated Obama, this country would be different.” The farmers had been denied a meeting with the secretary-of-something-important, and this same secretary had met with Obama when he was in Mexico this summer. I understand the farmers' frustrations, but seriously, what does Obama have to do with it? He, after all, didn’t elect Mexico’s corrupt politicians. And neither did I.)

There. That felt good.

Now before you go thinking that I've abandoned my liberal world views or have gone all -- gasp --Ugly American on you, know that I do think Mexico (and most of Latin America) has gotten the raw end of the (big) stick that is US foreign policy. It’s absolutely ridiculous that many of the world’s poorest nations share the same hemisphere with the world’s richest.

I (still) believe, idealistically or not, that this disparity needs to change. That’s why I’ve spent the last year of my life teaching in the proverbial trenches (those of you familiar with Huajuapan de León might agree with this analogy) to try to level that playing field a bit. But when I leave the warm, fuzzy cocoon that is my classroom and venture out into the streets, reality chips away at my idealism.

Before I left for Guatemala in April, a Mexican friend told me to watch out for the ratas de dos patas (that’s “two-legged rats,” e.g, thieves) that he believed plagued the lands of his neighbor to the south. Turns out, that friend was right. Those “two-legged rats” managed to milk me for my every last quetzal during my time in that country.

I should have better heeded my friend’s advice. But regardless, I’d argue that the ratas de dos patas aren’t limited to Guatemala. There seems to be quite a lot of them in Mexico, with an especially large concentration right here in my home state of Oaxaca, a state which also happens to be, arguably, the poorest in the country. These rats, thinly veiled as politicians, subsist on tax revenues and drug money (occasionally laundering it through the construction of a hospital, to be staffed by their best cronies upon completion), while the communities in their charge literally wither and die (there’s no money for water, after all).

I met a man who works for the Mexican Secretary of Education in a hotel bar in Mexico City last week. My increasingly-strong feelings of disillusionment, lubricated by the beer I was drinking, slipped right out of my mouth and into what was supposed to be a friendly conversation. He’d told me that his mother is from Oaxaca, from a small town in the marginalized region of the state where I live and work. The mention of his mom’s roots prompted the wrath of my blame-directing finger, which I pointed squarely at him, asking why he didn’t personally make sure that Oaxacan schools had more resources.

He politely replied that -- actually you silly gringa -- Oaxaca receives one of the biggest slices of the federal education budget of all the 31 states in this country. The problem, he explained, seems to be making sure that the cash actually gets to the schools, seeing as how Oaxaca’s famously-corrupt government takes it upon itself to “distribute” the funds.

With that being said, I stuck my blame-pointing finger in my pocket, and then shoved my proverbial foot inside my already-open mouth.

This Mexican government staffer is no more at fault for all of Oaxaca’s problems than I am as a U.S. citizen. But it’s human nature to want to place blame. So the Ugly American in me is tempted to shift that blame back on my Oaxacan hosts themselves for their complacency, for condoning such corruption.

I’d say that Oaxacans need to get out in the streets and protest the corruption in their government, but many are doing that already, in the form of infamous “teacher strikes” that actually have nothing to do with teachers and are hurting the fragile tourism industry here. I’d say they need to get out and vote for a new administration, but many are unable to do so, given that polling places mysteriously become “unavailable” in certain communities on election day.

So we’re back where we started: The easiest solution seems to be to blame the big, rich, neighbor to the north. I used to do this with mucho gusto, until I became its scapegoat and realized that this whole finger-pointing thing is really quite counter-productive.

While we’re all pointing fingers, the corruption continues. Ain’t nothin' gonna change, amigos.

An acquaintance recently asked me why I didn’t just throw in the towel, move back to Chicago, and marry a rich banker. (She was asking the question rhetorically, as she’s as much of a bleeding heart as I am.) The thought is tempting: Why do I stay here, making $38 USD a day and beating my head against the wall, planning English lessons in an under-resourced university for students who will eventually graduate and become a part of the society that blames me and my government for all of their problems?

Perhaps the loss of idealism, much like the network of fine lines that creeps across my once-fresh face every day, is an inevitable part of getting older. But the longer I spend underneath the oppressive Oaxacan sun, the more accelerated both processes seem to become.

To all of this, on the eve of Mexican Independence Day, I must add a very cynical but equally sincere "¡Viva México!"

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Laundry Wars

About a year ago, I fled a drug war in Culiacán, Sinaloa. In doing so, left behind armed guards at the grocery store, stray bullets in the streets, patrol choppers roaring over my apartment, and, yes, a washing machine.

Oh, how I miss that washing machine.

Huajuapan doesn’t have a drug war, per se, but doing the wash here is a battle all of its own.

It’s not for lack of lavanderías, however. Lavandería roughly translates to “laundry mat” but isn’t a laundry mat at all, at least not by my standards. Instead, a lavandería is where clothes go to die.

For 14 pesos a kilo (that’s about 50 cents a pound), you can drop your clothes off, and someone will “wash” and “dry” them and tell you when you can come by for “pick up.” Those unaccustomed with Mexican laundry mats are likely cursing my good fortune about now: Having somebody else do your wash for you certainly seems like a good deal.

Unfortunately, laundry service here is definitely an example of getting what you pay for: “Wash,” in a lavandería, means “soak in filthy water, throw in cheap soap, beat against rocks, stretch beyond recognition and then splatter with bleach.” “Dry,” in turn, means “blast 100% cotton garments in a heat that guarantees they shrink at least two sizes.” Finally, “pick up” means that you can come by for a bag of clothing that may or may not be your own, which means that somebody else walked off with your favorite black tank top and the green swimming suit that will be impossible to replace in Mexico because most Oaxaqueñas are 18 inches shorter and three sizes smaller than you are…

But I digress.

It took me a while to find a lavandería I could “trust” here in Huajuapan. I sacrificed several pairs of jeans, a least 30 socks, and the aforementioned tank top and bikini to the proverbial laundry gods before I found Lavandería Rocco, a laundry mat owned by two brothers that’s about a block away from my apartment. Over the months, we’ve struck a deal: I become their customer for life, and in turn, they don’t shrink, lose, stain, steal or otherwise ruin my clothes.

The Rocco brothers’ service is good, but not without drawbacks: As a small, family-run business, they’re often closed for days without warning, meaning that they’ve held my clean clothes “hostage” in their shop for the better part of a week in the past.

Their knack for being closed when I need them most has only worsened in the past weeks now that Lolita has gotten sick. Lolita is their dog, a mix of poodle and rat that they like to torture with pink sweaters and matching hair bows.

(One of the Rocco brothers is very effeminate, often greeting me with crimped eyelashes and a hint of mascara and lip gloss. The other couldn’t be more opposite, walking around shitless to show off the collection of tattoos on his chest. I think I know who Lolita belongs to…)

Just this morning, I dropped off nearly three kilos’ worth of laundry with the tattooed brother, and asked about the dog (I’m concerned about poor Lolita’s health, but my underlying motive was to know if the lavandería would be open on Monday. I’m leaving for a UN conference in Mexico City next week and need clean clothes to take with me).

He said Lolita was doing OK, and apologized for the many trips to the vet that had kept him from opening the shop. I smiled, wished him and Lolita the best, and said I’d call him Monday if the shop wasn’t open. (Yes, I have the lavendería’s number saved in my cell phone. That’s they way it’s done here in Huajuapan: Text us if you’d like, we may or may not respond, and you may or may not get your clothes this week.)

I then walked over to Huajuapan’s one and only tintorería (dry cleaner) to drop off my one and only business suit in preparation for said conference in Mexico City. I haven’t had much use for the dry cleaner here, seeing as how I haven’t had much use for my suit (my jean-and-t-shirt clad students wouldn’t know what to make of me if I came to school dressed so formally). I smiled as I approached the counter, presented my suit, said a silent prayer that it wouldn’t come back to me three sizes smaller and covered with bleach, and asked the girl when it might be ready.

“Next Saturday.”

My eyes widened. It takes a week to do drycleaning here? Are you serious? Clearly, I had been spoiled by same-day service in Chicago.

Time for Plan B. I quickly scanned the garment tags, which indicated that the suit could be machine washed in cold water. I hurried back to Rocco’s, hoping that they’d be able to clean it for me before I left for Mexico City on Monday.

When I got to the lavendería, it was closed. Damn it!

I shook my head, silently assessing my remaining options to get my suit clean in time. Did I take a risk with another lavandería in town? Wash it myself in my bathroom sink? Attempt to buy another suit somewhere in Huajuapan?

Suddenly, I heard someone call my name. The Rocco brothers pulled up on a motorcycle, the tough, tattooed one driving, the eyelash-crimped one riding on the back with Lolita and her pink bows in his lap. It was all I could do not to laugh at the scene.

The Rocco brothers are going to wash my suit for Monday, in theory.

Here’s hoping that Lolita’s feeling better next week. If not, here’s hoping that the United Nations doesn’t mind a blue jean-clad gringa serving as a panelist.